Can We Control Him?

Several months ago, the leader of a preacher search committee called me regarding a friend who had applied for their pulpit position. After a series of very good questions, he began asking a lot of questions that pertained to control.

It seemed the church recently had a minister/elder blowup. The church subsequently circled the wagons and now felt the last thing they wanted/needed was more “problems.” Here was the question he asked me about my friend:

“Can we control him?”

Hmmmm…

I asked him what he meant. As we talked, it seemed what he was really asking was, “Will he ultimately submit to the elders without incident, and resign likewise if it comes to it? Is he willing to allow the elders to “call the shots,” and disagree only modestly and briefly–as to avoid conflict? All of that seemed to be embedded in the question, “Can we control him?”

My response was, “I certainly hope not. Why would you want someone you could control?” His response, “Because we’ve had enough conflict.” I then suggested that by his definition my friend was not controllable. Not because he looks for conflict, but because he is a true preacher. Preachers who are truly called speak the truth no matter what–to whomever it must be spoken. This doesn’t mean they are brash, rude, or the proverbial bull in a china shop. It just means that a completely controllable preacher isn’t really a preacher. They are a spokesperson for the elders. These aren’t mutually exclusive, but they can be.

Being a preacher that is able to articulate effectively leadership’s vision (spokesperson) is a gift. However, simply acting however one must act to avoid disagreement or conflict is not what preaching is about. And, if such a “preacher” existed, would you really want him to occupy the pulpit every Sunday? Who wants to received biblical teaching from someone who is looks to his/her superiors first rather than to God…or worse…gets the two confused?

Churches need not look for the “controllable” preacher. Churches should look for a true preacher–one who knows when it’s time to submit to the group and time to challenge the group. They recognize when God’s Word is consistent with or violated by what is going on, and are willing to risk their “job” for integrity’s sake. They tell the truth as they see it to whomever, whenever, whatever the cost may be. Furthermore, they want to serve God in churches hungry to be what God has called them to be, not avoid conflict or wield control.

What is worse than conflict? Control with no accountability–or desire to hear the prophetic voice. Leadership without access to the prophetic voice when necessary sets itself up for moral and/or strategic failure. This failure will be born of pride, a commitment to listening within the confines of it’s own echo chamber and a desire to avoid conflict no matter what.

To be fair, some preachers believe themselves to be prophets when they are simply rude, immature, or judgmental. However, one of the worst things a church could do for it’s long-term spiritual health is bring in a “controllable” preacher. We would do better to humble ourselves and hone our ability to handle conflict in a healthy manner than to aspire to the lowest common denominator of leadership.

Do you think the church described above is unusual? How can churches synthesize a desire for peace and a desire to leave room to be challenged?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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8 thoughts on “Can We Control Him?

  1. Thanks for the blog post Tim. As I’ve mentioned before on your blog this type of thinking is entirely what is wrong with the churches of Christ. But your question:
    “However, one of the worst things a church could do for it’s long-term spiritual health is bring in a “controllable” preacher. We would do better to humble ourselves and hone our ability to handle conflict in a healthy manner than to aspire to the lowest common denominator of leadership.”

    Where in the new testament do we have the authority to “bring in” anyone, when a model (shepherd-driven) is so carefully laid out? Why in the world are we continuing this broken model of leadership where the board of directors (elders) go and “hire” a CEO (preacher) to do their work of spiritually feeding the sheep? (Aside from wanting to control him or not)

    Why would Paul spend so much time instructing Timothy/Titus to put churches right through good, Godly elders/deacons? So they could then turn around and go hire someone else to do the preaching, teaching, instructing, counseling, management, vision, bible-school program, small group ministry? Oh, one person can’t do all of that? Cool! Let’s invent new titles and hire more people for our organization! Minister of Children’s Ministry anyone?

    I’m serving in the least churched country in Western Europe…there is one church of Christ in the entire country! Perhaps my perspective is colored by my circumstances but this whole discussion is silly to our circumstances to the point that I can only throw up my hands and say “only in America.”

    • Kevin, I’m not sure I believe the pattern is that clear. When the church in Acts begins, there are no shepherds (elders, etc.) at all. The only reason “elders” come into existence appears to be practical–the needs of people surpassed the ability of the disciples to serve them. The role they take is the ministry of the Word and prayer. That doesn’t resemble any church of Christ I’ve encountered. That role is typically outsourced to the minister.

      In Timothy and Titus, Paul asks the evangelist figure to appoint the elders…and it would seem odd to me the pattern would be the submission of Paul, Timothy and Titus to the men they themselves appointed–at least in a hierarchical way. I suppose it’s possible–but it’s far more likely they were setting up leadership that could continue in their absence–not their presence.

      The reality is there is no “job description” for what elders do–other than perhaps Acts 6–and I don’t get the sense that was set forth as the divine pattern–but rather a recording of how the church dealt with a crisis of ministry.

      My reading of the N.T. is there is very little description given of what elders are supposed to do and what relationship they have to the “evangelist” figure. We have the kind of men they are supposed to be, and some terms like “overseer,” “shepherd,” etc. But, that isn’t really a pattern or a clear job description.

      I feel our system is generally and deeply broken in both structure and heart. Some churches navigate all of this marvelously. Most do not. As such, we might do better to place the emphasis on “weightier matters” of ecclesiology like love, faith, etc. and base our leadership paradigms on that rather than emphasizing the pattern.

      I’d love to hear some more about your situation. It sounds really unique. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  2. In my experience of looking at ministry opportunities with congregations of the Churches of Christ, I have found it to pretty balanced between churches who want a “controllable” preacher and those who want a leader who will serve from gospel vision and wisdom. I have always avoided the former. However, I have also learned that it is one thing (and very easy) for any church to say “we want a visionary leader driven by the gospel” and another thing for a church to put such desire into practice.